Harry Houdini never really got away with the movie career he craved, but not for want of trying. That it was more chequered than his stage one was due to a combination of censorship and distribution problems (he often chose to work on independent films that sold rights state-by-state), the inevitable lawsuits over the profits and his own ego preventing him from pushing himself beyond his perceived comfort zone - which, curiously, was to avoid repeating his most famous stage stunts onscreen that could have made him a unique early action hero in favour of roles stressing his scientific and crime-solving interests. It's not helped that only one of his films survives completely intact, though Kino have done a good job of collecting what survives of all of them on their Houdini the Movie Star collection, pasting over the gaps with stills and (often rather too brief and undetailed) captions. Both print quality and the editing are highly variable, but it's enough to get a good impression of Houdini's strengths and weaknesses. He's not the handsomest of leading men or a great actor - as one critic noted, he alternates between three stock expressions while Variety cruelly but accurately said "the only asset he has in the acting line is his ability to look alert" - but he does have presence and a self-belief that carries him through the melodramatic plots.
The Master Mystery was a serial that saw him as a undercover government agent Qentin Locke, trying to bust a corporation that buys up patents for groundbreaking inventions and then buries them in return for money from the companies they threaten to ruin if they hit the market. It pretty much adheres to the tone of the decades of serials that would follow with its mysterious unidentified master criminal - masquerading as a robot, `The Automaton' - and in feeling dragged out at 15 chapters, so it's small wonder that many distributors shortened it, with only the shorter versions surviving, losing some of the more interesting sounding stunts and escapes (sadly, all that survives of an escape that sees Houdini suspended above a vat of acid is a fragment in the supplementary `Censor's Report' feature listing the many censor cuts the series went through). Most of Houdini's escapes here seem to involve an awful lot of frantic shaking around, but some of them are a bit more intricate and occasionally fascinating to watch. But much of the series is taken up with romantic complications and such staples of melodrama as amnesiac fathers, lost daughters, disputed inheritances, poisoned potions and caddish suitors. It's the kind of serial that's probably a lot easier to take spread over 15 weeks than watched in on go, but it's also the only one of his screen outings that features plenty of the kind of great escapes that made his name.
Made for Paramount and with noticeably better production and story values, Terror Island may well be his most enjoyable film, though two reels of what sounds like fun stuff is still missing, leaving a big gap in the film's narrative. It's a silly treasure hunt yarn, with Houdini the inventor of a revolutionary submarine who sets out to rescue the father of the woman he loves from the tropical island natives who want to sacrifice him while her duplicitous relatives want to use him as bait to get their hands on the treasure he uncovered. The surviving stunts - particularly an escape from being suspended by poles from a tree - are good and James Cruze's direction makes sure that Houdini is surrounded by a decent cast (a villainous Eugene Palette among them) in decent settings to prevent it seeming too much of a one-man show. Audiences at the time didn't agree, the disappointing box-office leading to Houdini going back to independent production.
For many, The Man from Beyond is probably the best-known of Houdini's films, if only because its Niagara Falls finale was included on the 1961 Robert Youngson compilation Days of Thrills and Laughter. Certainly it seems his most personal film, combining his interest in life beyond death with the requisite stunts and escapes (noticeably fewer in number this time) in its tale of a man found frozen in the wreck of a ship in the Arctic who is revived - initially because a lost and hungry member of another doomed expedition wants to eat him! - and brought back to civilisation a hundred years after his `death' where he finds the woman of his dreams reincarnated. She's being married at the time (literally - he interrupts the service) and he doesn't know it's the 20th century despite being driven to her house, so he ends up having to escape a lunatic asylum to help her find her missing father who's been lured away from the aforementioned Arctic expedition by her unscrupulous fiancé and is being kept locked in his animal laboratory under the stairs until he signs over his entire fortune. It's not half as entertaining as that makes it sound, and there's not much action either - an escape from a straightjacket and a padded cell and a brief bit of literal cliffhanging and a stunt with the girl in a canoe on the edge of Niagara Falls that was probably more dangerous to shoot than it looks on film. For most of the film, even in the shortened six-reel version that survives, it's pretty dull melodrama flatly played with particularly unconvincing plotting, though it's interesting to note the brief name-check to Arthur Conan Doyle in the last scene shortly before he and Houdini fell out.
If stunts were few and far between in The Man From Beyond, they're not even in the plural in his final film Haldane of the Secret Service, with only a lacklustre watermill escape providing the kind of stunt an audience attracted by Houdini's name would expect, which might explain why it sat on the shelf for a couple of years before a disappointing escape into theaters. Always fancying himself as a renaissance man and often describing himself as being foremost an inventor, his interest in criminology takes centre-stage in this Yellow Peril counterfeiting number that made use of stock footage Houdini shot of himself in various capital cities while on tour. Thus we see such exciting scenes as Houdini changing from a bus to a tram in Glasgow or climbing into a kiosk in Paris before cutting back to interior scenes as the intrepid secret service man on the trail of the gang of counterfeiters, narcotics and antiquities smugglers and monk impersonators who killed his father, constantly being sidetracked by Gladys Leslie who tells him a completely different story each time they meet, usually leading him into danger and thus causing him to believe she must be innocent. The plot's no more convincing than the master criminal's Oriental disguise (refreshingly the other Chinese roles are all played by Chinese actors) and, aside from swimming and climbing onto a departing liner, there's more talk than action, though Houdini's acting shows minor signs of improvement even if his other attempts at multi-tasking - he directed and produced as well - are not so successful. The best preserved and longest of any of his features, it's hard not to imagine that it's because the prints never got shown enough to get that damaged in the first place because of lack of interest...
More impressive is the mid-air stunt that is all that survives of Houdini's first feature The Grim Game. It's not actually Houdini climbing from one plane to another mid-air, but the collision between the two planes was real and, luckily, the sequence is well directed and edited. The disc also includes numerous short films of Houdini's public escapes that he incorporated in his stage act, as well as the `Metamorphosis' stunt performed by his brother Hardeen, a brief 1914 audio recording of Houdini introducing his Water Chamber `Invention,' a short French comedy probably inspired by Houdini, Slippery Jim, as well as stills and detailed production notes. All in all it's one of those packages where the whole turns out to be greater than the sum of the parts, at least as far as the films themselves go.